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Exeter Stories

Exeter folk and friends in their own words - 1890's to the 1990's │ << Previous story │ Next story >>  │

Mrs V M Dean - The West Quarter and St Nicholas Priory


The West Quarter

The West Quarter was another world. You would cross the road to Kings Street and go right across to Rack Street. We used to call friends of our mother, aunties back in those days.

Well my aunty Lou used to live in a tenement, and I mean a tenement, down in Coombe Street. You used to go down Rack Street and there was a little church there and a cobbled yard, ever so frightening it was, all cobbled stones. We used to go down beside this church down a little lane, across a yard and you'd come out in the bottom of Coombe Street. This tenement was on the left hand side of Coombe Street going up. You'd go in this ever so dark place, up some stairs, no lights, onto the landing and you'd open the door and there'd be one room, no gas, no electricity, nothing, just a small window looking into Coombe Street.

Now on one side there was a fireplace where they cooked on this fire. Then on the opposite side was a recess and there was a double bed, an iron double bed with a feather mattress and behind that bed was a curtain where the children used to sleep. And they all lived in one
room. That was what a real tenement was like, I would never like to live in it. And you'd go downstairs and into a passageway and right out into an awful yard and the smell was terrible.

I remember that smell - I suppose that's where the toilet was for all the lot of the people. But you'd always see the women and the men, summer evenings, always outside in Coombe Street, talking or sat on a chair.

I remember when my aunt used to look after us when mother and father used to do the paper round. She wasn't really my aunt, just a friend of my Mum's and she used to look after my sister and I. She used to go to this evening, sort of like a religious service and it was held in where they hold this Assembly of God in Exe Island. But we never used to go down to Exe Island because if you look at this Assembly of God you'll see a tunnel fixed to Bridge Street and you used to go in an entrance there. They'd never have got them there otherwise.

My aunt used to live in Rack Street - she had some sort of a flat over a warehouse - and we used to go down over Rack Street to Westcott Slip. Now down Bridge Street on the right hand side there was a glass double door and there used to be an old lady sit there with one of these baskets I was telling you about and she used to sell sweets: cream brown mint humbugs, brown humbugs, and hard bake. Hard bake consisted of a dark treacle toffee with coconut over the top of it and she used to sell it for a halfpenny a bag. And my aunty would say "Go down and get me a ha'porth of hard bake and a ha'porth of white humbugs", and we used to eat these during the service. Sometimes this woman used to pop a sweet into our mouth and when we used to take the sweets to aunty she said, "You've pinched a sweet, haven't you?" And we used to day, "No, the lady's given to us", but she didn't believe us you know. And of course she couldn't ever ask the lady because by the time the service was over the lady was gone. And we used to sit in these pews, listen to this chappy and used to see all these sweets being passed to all the women in the row. And if we were lucky we used to have one as well.

Then afterwards we'd come out of there and there was a pub across the road and they would, have long skirts and boots, the women, and they nearly always used to take a bottle out of their skirts and go in and get a pint of beer and take it home. I suppose going to church was an evening out and no doubt they had an outing in the summer which they could go to, which was something back then. Back then, when the people were poor, they used to send their children to these places about three or four weeks before Christmas so they could go to the Christmas party.

St Nicholas Priory

In the Mint was St. Nicholas Priory. Bill Tapp whose mother used to keep the shop used to do some errands for a Miss Tothill and she was the sort of guide, and she showed the people around. Now that place was open every day of the week except Sundays.

Well, when Bill couldn't do the job any more, I took over. I used to go in up these big steps - it was ever so creepy when you were a little kiddy - and across the big hall and up the stairs and that's where she had her living quarters. She didn't actually live there, she went home, but that's where she used to have her lunches and things. And she used to love her little animals. She had a guinea pig and a rabbit up there in a hutch. I used to go every dinner time and do her errands for her. I used to have to get three pennyworth of mutton bones and get her paper and get her fruit. I used to take that back and I used to get a shilling a week for this.

The Coffin in the Crypt

But downstairs they've got what they call the crypt, with big arches. And in the crypt is a coffin and it was made of stone and the lid was kept opened by a big beam. And you opened a double door and you were in a sort of cobbled yard. In that yard was an aviary. And it was massive. And in this aviary was a raven called George. And when she used to take these people around she used to give George a trilby hat; he used to pick it up by the brim and take it around to ask the people for money which used to help pay for his mutton bones. And George was absolutely gorgeous. He had blue black feathers and he was gorgeous.

In this place where this coffin was, over in the corner was an archway with a spiral staircase all made out of stone and in the corner was a window carved out of stone in the shape of a shamrock. Well one day I went to see Miss Tothill at teatime 'cos I also used to have to go over to the cemetery and get fresh grass every day for the guinea pig so I used to go over there teatimes as well. She said "Don't go out the main door. Go out the side door". Both doors lead into the Mint. She said, "Go out the side way". I said "OK". So I went down; the door creaked; shut the door, then I heard her lock the door, and out I go to go out the side door and it was locked. And I couldn't make anybody hear me.

And there was I shut in the crypt where the coffin was: I daren't look back at this coffin. I was there what seemed hours but I don't expect it was. And I remember shouting - it was getting darkish - and somebody heard me. And how they got the people I don't know. I think Miss Tothill used to live in Heavitree somewhere which was another world to us. They got me out, but I had visions... wouldn't it be terrible to have to sleep there all night. And this coffin they used to keep the lid open with a beam: there wasn't anything in it but in my imagination there was - it was terrible. But isn't it marvellous? During the war I used to help with the air raid warden and it was where they used to go because it was one of the safest places.

Miss Tothill used to give me a shilling a week and I can tell you exactly what I used to do with that money. I'd put sixpence of that in the Post Office, give threepence to my sister and keep threepence myself. And if it was in the winter we used to take the penny and say, "Which cinema shall we go to?" We used to go to King's Hall which was down in Okehampton Street. But Saturday mornings when all the kids used to congregate outside we used to see Tom Mix and all these fascinating people; there used to be a woman, Pearl Something, always chained to a railway line and you'd see this train coming and then the film would stop and it would say, "What will happen to her? Come and see next week." But to get as many children on the seats as possible they used to bring planks of wood in and put them right across the fronts of the seats, so instead of putting two on a seat they could put four.

There was the King's Hall and then coming up Fore Street there was Franklyn's Bug House. My mother used to say, "You kids, you walk in and you ride out". Then just before the top of Fore Street next to the Chev Inn was a cinema called The Lounge; then the Gaumont where it is now in North Street and opposite Bedford Street, Bedford Circus as it was called, there used to be The Empire; then where the Hippodrome was they built the Plaza, then the Savoy and then there used to be the Palladium down in Paris Street and then the Odeon. There used to be a lot of cinemas but then there used to be hundreds and hundreds of people who went to the cinema, because it was cheap enough for a family to go out.
It's different today: they've taken the heart out of the city.

© 2007 Jenny Lloyd

This memory of the West Quarter and ST Nicholas Priory taken from the contributon by Mrs V M Dean to the People Talking project that was compiled by Jenny Lloyd in the 1970's. The full transcript, and other People Talking memories are available at the West Country Studies Library or the Devon and Exeter Institution.

The coffin in St Nicholas Priory The coffin in the crypt.

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